The benefits of single-tasking

by Inga Tomasdottir

When was the last time you paid full attention to what you were doing? In the hustle and bustle of today’s society it can be difficult to pay full attention to one thing at a time. There are countless stimuli competing for our attention; emails, phone calls, notifications on smartphones… the list goes on and on. In order to keep up with everything that is going on, we turn to multitasking. Calling a friend while driving home, playing a game on your phone while watching TV or even planning your coming week while you are exercising. Sometimes it is inevitable. If we lead busy lives, we need to multitask once in a while to complete all our daily tasks. However, that can come with a cost.

The word ‘multitasking’ is actually misleading as it suggests that our brain can do more than one thing at a time. What multitasking really is, is our brain switching rapidly back and forth between the things we are trying to ‘multitask’. Thus, multitasking would be better described as ‘task switching’. There are some signs that point to a relationship between multitasking and reduced memory. Anthony Wagner, a professor in psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Memory Laboratory, has looked into this relationship1. He was especially interested in media multitaskers, that is, people who have many media channels open at once and switch between them. He differentiated between heavy and light media multitaskers, depending on how much they multitask. When comparing the two groups, it became apparent that the heavy media multitaskers were often underperforming significantly on tasks of working memory and sustained attention. While it is too early to tell if multitasking causes reduced memory, there is still reason to be cautious. Professor Wagner says, “Multitasking isn’t efficient … If you are multitasking while doing something significant, like an academic paper or work project, you’ll be slower to complete it and you might be less successful.”Professor Wagner’s advice suggests that if we feel the need to multitask, for example if we are very pressed for time, it would be sensible to choose tasks of lower importance to multitask and give the more important tasks full focus.

Focusing on one thing at a time has sometimes been called ‘single-tasking’ or ‘monotasking’, and it is the opposite of multitasking. When we single-task, we have our attention fully focused on what we are doing, and our mind does not wander elsewhere. For most people that can be a difficult thing to do. A study from 2010 that looked into this, found that people’s minds wandered from the activity they were engaging in up to 47% of the time2. It seemed that the type of activity people were doing did not affect how much their mind was wandering, it seemed to happen across most activities. They also found that when people’s mind was elsewhere, they were not as happy. The results from their study suggest that what people were thinking was a better predictor of happiness, than what they were doing. In other words, when people were focused on the activity they were doing, they were happier than when their mind was wandering. One possible explanation of why a non-wandering mind can make you happier, can be found in a study on mindfulness from 20183. They found that people who monitored what they were experiencing in the moment and accepted that without trying to judge or control it, had significantly more improved positive feelings than people who only monitored their experiences. Monitoring what they are experiencing essentially means keeping the mind focused on whatever they have decided to focus on; it can be on how they are feeling, what they are sensing or what is happening around them. Then to notice when the mind has wandered elsewhere and deliberately bring it back. By practising mindfulness it is possible to gain this awareness and train yourself to bring the mind back to whatever it is you want to focus on. When we keep our mind focused in the present we are momentarily letting go of the past and we are not thinking about what is going to happen next. We are simply letting ourselves be in the moment. That is what mindfulness is essentially about, contrary to what some might believe. It is not about clearing your mind and not think of anything. It is about gaining awareness of where the mind is. Noticing when your mind is wandering, without judging yourself for it, and gently bring the attention back. This technique can help those who are struggling with focusing on one thing at a time. Practise noticing when your mind has wandered and try to bring the attention back to your task.

Here are some questions you can keep in mind if you are interested in trying this for yourself.

  • Notice when you are single-tasking – what activity are you doing?
  • How does it feel to be fully focused on one thing?
  • Is it difficult for you to keep your attention on the activity? 
  • Which activities do you find it easy to fully focus on? Which are harder to focus on?
  • How does it feel to multitask?

References

(1) Bates, S. (2018, October 24). A decade of data reveals that heavy multitaskers have reduced memory, Stanford psychologist says. Stanford News. https://news.stanford.edu/2018/10/25/decade-data-reveals-heavy-multitaskers-reduced-memory-psychologist-says/

(2) Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science330(6006), 932-932.

(3) Lindsay, E. K., Chin, B., Greco, C. M., Young, S., Brown, K. W., Wright, A. G. C., Smyth, J. M., Burkett, D., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). How mindfulness training promotes positive emotions: Dismantling acceptance skills training in two randomized controlled trials. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 944–973.

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